“Community colleges have long been the neglected stepchild of higher education in America. They are the institutions that absorb millions of less affluent students, who enter college with high ambitions but poor preparation. Bridging the Gaps analyzes the many obstacles to realizing the worthy goals of millions of American students who are tripped up by institutional reliance on test scores, discouraging forms of remedial education, and advising systems that fail to reach the students who need them most. The authors tell us why this is the case and, more importantly, what we have to do to remedy the situation for the good of our young people, mature students, the labor market, and employers who need a skilled workforce. It is a critically important read.”
—Katherine S. Newman, provost, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Torrey Little Professor of Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
“Bridging the Gaps explodes two myths. The first is that the baccalaureate degree is the only postsecondary degree worth having. The second is that students fail in community colleges primarily for lack of ability or motivation to succeed. Through a series of well-designed studies, the authors show that sub-baccalaureate credentials are valuable in the labor market and for life and work satisfaction. They show that confusing and ineffective placement tests, unclear pathways to degrees, poor advising, and weak career services contribute to the shockingly low completion rates at community colleges. They demonstrate that the correction of these deficiencies is not expensive and would allow community colleges to contribute much more than they currently do to students' aspirations for upward mobility.”
—Steven Brint, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and Vice Provost, University of California, Riverside
College-for-all has become the new American dream. Most high school students today express a desire to attend college, and 90 percent of on-time high school graduates enroll in higher education in the eight years following high school. Yet, degree completion rates remain low for nontraditional students—students who are older, low-income, or have poor academic achievement—even at community colleges that endeavor to serve them. What can colleges do to reduce dropouts? In Bridging the Gaps, education scholars James Rosenbaum, Caitlin Ahearn, and Janet Rosenbaum argue that when institutions focus only on bachelor’s degrees and traditional college procedures, they ignore other pathways to educational and career success. Using multiple longitudinal studies, the authors evaluate the shortcomings and successes of community colleges and investigate how these institutions can promote alternatives to BAs and traditional college procedures to increase graduation rates and improve job payoffs.
The authors find that sub-baccalaureate credentials—associate degrees and college certificates—can improve employment outcomes. Young adults who complete these credentials have higher employment rates, earnings, autonomy, career opportunities, and job satisfaction than those who enroll but do not complete credentials. Sub-BA credentials can be completed at community college in less time than bachelor’s degrees, making them an affordable option for many low-income students.
Bridging the Gaps shows that when community colleges overemphasize bachelor’s degrees, they tend to funnel resources into remedial programs and try to get low-performing students on track for a BA. Yet, remedial programs have inconsistent success rates and can create unrealistic expectations, leading struggling students to drop out before completing any degree. The authors show that colleges can devise procedures that reduce remedial placements and help students discover unseen abilities, attain valued credentials, get good jobs, and progress on degree ladders to higher credentials.
To turn college-for-all into a reality, community college students must be aware of their multiple credential and career options. Bridging the Gaps shows how colleges can create new pathways for nontraditional students to achieve success in their schooling and careers.
JAMES E. ROSENBAUM is professor of sociology, education, and social policy, and research fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.
CAITLIN AHEARN is a Ph.D. student in sociology at UCLA.
JANET E. ROSENBAUM is assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY.